The water kept coming, and city workers kept going

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VENTNOR – Like many longtime residents, Ralph Venzie was here for the 1962 storm that is often referred to locally as the storm of the century.

Last week’s storm was much worse, he said.

“It was up to my chest,” said Venzie, standing outside the Edgewater Avenue home he has lived in for 30 years.

The lifelong resident pointed to a fireplug across the street and said that at the height of Hurricane Sandy, the water was a foot and a half above it.

“It was just ridiculous,” said Venzie. “I thought, ‘How high is it going to go?’ It just kept going and going.”

Mayor Mike Bagnell said the water filled the city’s sewer system and caused one of its three pumps to blow a fuse.

“The water got so high; the bay came up to Ventnor Avenue across the whole city. It was up to 4 feet in some spots,” Bagnell said Monday. “It filled the sewer system with bay water so the pumps were trying to purge the bay water. It was way more volume than they were designed to handle.”

He said there was also a water main break at Newport and Winchester avenues during the storm, but there was never a problem with the city’s drinking water.

Bagnell said that just after noon on Thursday, Nov. 1, a fuse was flown in from North Carolina to get the city’s third pump up and running.

“The danger of the bay water being in there wasn’t a problem. The danger would have been people who came back into town flushing toilets, and instead of bay water flowing down the streets, it would have human waste,” said Bagnell.

“The potential for horrendous disease from that far outweighed any inconvenience to wait 12 hours before we let them back in,” he added.

Residents who heeded the mandatory evacuation were allowed back into Ventnor at 3:30 Friday, Nov. 2.

Bagnell said City Hall took a hit during the storm. 

“We had no communications; city phones were down, cell phones weren’t working, City Hall was without heat because water came in and flooded the heater,” the mayor said.

He said the phones and Internet were working by Thursday, but when City Hall reopened, employees were using space heaters to keep warm.

“The police, fire and city workers were out in the height of the storm. Police and fire were responding to calls from people wanting to be evacuated, there were electrical problems, car fires, house fires and break-ins – most of them were just false alarms tripped by the storm,” Bagnell said.

“They all did an amazing job. I couldn’t be prouder of these guys than I am. They worked tirelessly. They worked around the clock for almost five days straight.”

He pointed out that some city workers are also Ventnor residents.

“A couple of young police officers lost everything in their houses, but they maintained their professionalism. I said, ‘Go home and deal with your stuff,’ and they said no,” Bagnell said.

He said the city was able to get up and running because a team of volunteers came in to answer the phones, and officers from the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Department and New Jersey State Police assisted local officers in manning barricades and patrolling the streets.

Commissioner Frank Sarno said the phones were ringing every couple of minutes, and the commissioners and volunteers were giving out the best information they could to help people.

“I understand so many people were affected – it’s heartbreaking to see everything when you’re driving around the city,” Sarno said Monday.

“We were affected by the storm. Everyone was, and our hearts go out to them. People, whether they were affected or not, still came out and helped and volunteered in City Hall, at the community center and at the school.”

He said the commissioners can’t thank people enough for what they did for their community.

“We want to thank the people who donated, there were anonymous donations. We thank them tremendously. They helped people who lost a lot more than others.”

Sarno said City Hall volunteers deferred cleaning their own homes to help the city.

“This is after people were let back on the island, people were still here. They could have been home trying to clean up their homes,” he said.

Commissioner Theresa Kelly said the city was using Facebook and the city’s email list to communicate to residents.

“The problem we had was reaching people that didn’t have power until their phones worked or their cell phones were working,” she said Tuesday.

She said she answered people’s questions the best she could.

“In all, I had very few people who were not thankful for the information I was giving to them and thankful that they could call us whenever to hear what was happening,” Kelly said.

The city workers pulled through in one of the most trying times for the city, she said.

“Those people were tired, really tired, and they just kept on with smiles on their faces. They looked like they needed some sleep. Really, they had a smile on their face asking what was the next job for them to do,” Kelly said. “Ventnor does come through.”

She said the city is hiring a contractor to pick up some of the bulk trash that is sitting on sidewalks.

All three commissioners rode out the storm in their homes. 

“Unfortunately, if you weren’t living it, you don’t know,” Sarno said. 

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